We are usually distracted enough by the talking ass in our parashat hashavua to fail to notice some of the other more sobering moments of the story of the mercenary prophet Balaam and King Balak of Moab. The very idea of a talking animal might lead us to miss the fact that she is the only reasonable voice in the narrative, and that hers is the voice of the usually unheard. In this way she is a harbinger of much more: her rider’s ears are closed to his true mission, and the king’s to the way fear makes him imagine danger.
The People of Israel, a group of refugees making their way from terror toward the dream of safety, appear on the lands of the King of Moab, who immediately seeks to secure his border and repel the needy travelers. (This story may be the justification for the Israelite meaning given to the Moabite name, which literally connotes “misbegotten bastard.”)
Then as now, it often seems that any stranger appearing on our doorstep brings with them not human need we might meet, but danger.
This week a damaged car appeared at the curb of the Commons; inside, a couple who had already lost their home and, now, their only place of safety. We had two options: to ignore them and call the police, or to go over, say hello, and see if we could help. I’m proud of us that we did the latter, and that our membership is deep and wide enough with expertise and compassion to find an elderly couple an emergency hotel room voucher and a sheltered place where they can stay together.
The Israelites were not welcomed when they showed up at King Balak’s doorstep. The way we tell the story, our innocence saved us, and when the prophet Balaam who was hired to curse us opened his mouth, blessing came out instead. The blessing was the divine voice cutting through the human fear; for us, it’s any small gesture that can overcome our apprehension and establish humanity between us and those who seem unlike us. And any of us might manifest that ability to turn a curse into a blessing on any given day, if we can find it within us to listen to the voice of reason, even when at first it seems to be coming from too unlikely a place to credit – like a talking donkey.
It’s possible, though, to see a more complicated story here. Balaam’s most famous words in this parashah are
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! (BaMidbar 24.5)
Which we like to repeat endlessly – indeed, they are the first words we are to recite in the liturgy when we enter a prayer space. But the Midianite prophet also proclaims
הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations (BaMidbar 23.9)
For two thousand years these words have proved to be a curse with power far beyond King Balak’s dreams. Whether wandering through other nation’s territory with no expectation of rights or safety, or re-establishing a state in our ancient home which fits neither in Europe nor Asia or Africa (see the U.N.’s international groupings), or the reality that even in the most enlightened and compassionate circles of society we are most often erased from social justice narratives, Jews are a people who are not reckoned among the nations.
Who are these Jews? Certainly King Balak didn’t care to get to know us. He stopped at fear and imagined danger. We know better, but we can’t seem to get the message across. Small and large antisemitic words and acts surround us even in those who seem to be our comrades and friends. What’s a Jew to do?
Only what we have always done, and as the haftarah reminds us this Shabbat:
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹ-יךָ
O human being, you have been told what is good,
And what is required of you:
And walk modestly with that which you worship.
Only one thing silences the hostile voices of those who will never allow us peace, and that is to stay focused on why we exist. Respond to hate by stoking the inner fire of your love for all that is holy in your life: Keep listening for the voice of the holy: focus on the kindness that is in your hands to do, and the justice that is in your power to demand. And let modesty walk with you, reminding you that it is not up to you to heal the world, just to keep your eye on what your ability allows.